Jan 31, 2011

Dialogue is also frequently used to establish conflict. One of the common mistakes I've seen as I've judged contests and critiqued pages for people over the years is that writers often establish conflict in internal monologue and then repeat it in dialogue; i.e.,
She couldn’t do this. The memories were too strong and the past too close to ignore. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning away abruptly. “I can’t do this. I just can’t forget.”
Another common dialogue problem is the Why Now? Conversation. These are conversations that in real life would have taken place long ago, but are dropped into the manuscript to feed information to the reader. For example, a conversation like this between two long-time friends the scene before the hero (who just happened to be with the hit-and-run driver that fateful night....)
“I know you were in that accident when we were in college, but I’ve never asked-- Did you ever find out who ran into your car?”

“No. We never did. We looked and looked, even hired a detective, but we never found the guy.”
Unless these two characters haven't seen each other, had access to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook or Twitter for the past few years, they know the answer. This is not a realistic conversation for them to have. If you use unrealistic conversations like this, it's a form of lying to your reader--which is never a good thing to do.

How do you avoid making these mistakes? Simply put, employ some common sense. I think that mistakes like these should be a red flag to you as an author -- an indication that you aren’t seeing your characters as real people. You’re seeing them as cardboard pieces there for you to move around to illustrate a point or tell your story.

  • Ask yourself if two real people in the same circumstances are likely to have this same conversation. 
  • Ask yourself how this conversation would go between you and a friend in the same circumstances. Read your dialogue aloud. Reading your dialogue silently on the page is not going to help you find the problem areas. 
  • Have someone else read your dialogue aloud to you. Another person won’t disguise the problem areas the way you might for yourself. You’ll hear the dialogue exactly as it’s written, which allows you to know where inflection or punctuation may need to be changed or added.
  • Spend time eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations to hear what kinds of things people say to each other. Figure out how much you can assume about those people from the conversation you hear.
Most of all, practice, practice, practice. That's the key to mastering technique, with writing as with any other artistic endeavor. 

Jan 28, 2011

You Talkin' to Me?

We all know that dialogue is often used to provide backfill. Providing that backfill in dialogue between a couple of characters can be a much more interesting way to share that information with your readers than resorting to a lengthy narrative information dump -- but if the dialogue isn't written well, there's very little difference.


She walked into the house and took a deep breath. She'd spent many happy hours here as a child, sitting on the floor while her grandmother and her friends spent endless hours at the quilting frames, playing with the dolls her grandmother had kept just for her, escaping the turmoil her parents' trouble marriage created at home.
Is not much different from this:

She walked into the house and took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm back here again," she said to Bob. "I spent so many happy hours here when I was little . . . I used to sit under the quilting frame while my grandmother and her friends were quilting. And she had the loveliest dolls. She kept them here just for me. It was really my only escape from the ugliness at home." 

Putting quotations around the information doesn't turn it into strong, useful dialogue.

One of the first things you have to consider when you're creating dialogue that will divulge some of the character's backfill is who she's talking to. Obviously, here, she's talking to Bob. But who is Bob? If Bob is a long-time friend, their conversation will be different than if he's a new acquaintance, and different still if he's a family member. If he's only a friend, their conversation will be different than if he's someone she's developing romantic feelings for, and if those feelings are already developed, the conversation will be different still.

The first great key to writing believable dialogue is to remember who's involved and to tailor the dialogue accordingly. Remember that most real people are reluctant to just pour out information in front of people who don't know them very well, and no matter how honest we may pride ourselves on being, we are usually quite anxious to present ourselves in a favorable light.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make with dialogue is writing conversations in which people divulge information they wouldn't really share under the circumstances. Remember that everything in your book must be motivated, not just the character's back stories. Their actions and dialogue in every scene must be well-motivated, too.

Characters that move around on stage without good reason feel stilted and unrealistic, and the same is true for characters that say things without good reason. One of my least favorite things as a reader is to pick up a novel in which the characters are trying to learn some kind of secret. They visit someone who may have some information, but who has a very good reason not to share that information. Suddenly, for no reason except that the author wants to share the information with me, the character begins to share things no real person in those circumstances would share.

Dialogue that's only motivated by the author's need to get the information onto the page will never feel realistic. The characters involved have to be motivated to share the information. Sometimes the hardest work you'll do in a day of writing will be to figure out why a particular character would say the thing you need him to say, and then figure out how he'll say it.

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Jan 24, 2011

Keep it Real ... Or Maybe Not

Writing natural-sounding dialogue is something that comes very naturally to some people, but it's also something that others will struggle with for a long, long time. Whether we're good at it or not so good, dialogue is a very important tool when it comes to story-telling, and it's one we can't afford to overlook.

Dialogue can be used to provide information. We all know this. But chatter just for the sake of providing information can create clutter in your work. Dialogue that exists only to provide information to the reader will almost always sound stilted and unnatural. What you tend to get is one of these conversations -- what many of us call the "As You Know" dialogue
"As you know, John, I’ve been blind since the accident that also left me psychic.”
"Yes, but didn't your mother tell you that psychic abilities also run in your family?"
"Why, yes, John. My great-aunt Freda, whom you met at the family reunion last summer, is also psychic. You remember that she told you about her husband who ran off with his secretary."

“Well, you know I’ve been trying to find someone to clean my house for the past three months.”

"Yes, and the last six people who applied for the job just didn't fit the bill. I don't blame you for turning away the woman you told me about who had the prison record."

Sometimes it's necessary to write conversations between people who already have all the information you're planning to share with the reader, but there’s a skillful way to work the information into a conversation. It takes a little more time, but the end result is worth it. Take the first example I just gave you. Instead, write something like this: 

“I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again?”
She nodded. “It’s been three years since the accident and I still have trouble accepting that this is how I’ll spend the rest of my life.”
“Try not to think about what you’ve lost,” John urged. “Try to think about what you’ve gained.”

“I do try,” she said. “Some days it helps, but others . . . Tell me, John, would you consider exchanging your eyesight for the limited ability to see the future a fair trade?”

Or for the second example: 
“Any calls today?”

“About the housekeeper’s position?” Marsha shook her head. “It’s been three months already. Wouldn’t you think I’d have found somebody by now?”
“You’ve had plenty of applicants,” Trudy said with a grin. “You’re just too picky.”

Marsha laughed. “You can’t seriously think I should have hired the ex-con?”

“Of course not. Just pointing that you’ve had options, that’s all.”

The trick to believable dialogue is to provide information to the readers subtly, so that it sounds natural and interesting at the same time. 

Real dialogue, the kind real people engage in every day, is often almost unreadable and a lot of it is beyond boring. People interrupt one another, leave sentences unfinished, and say a whole lot of nothing, especially when they first come together in a room. As writers, our task is not to repeat real dialogue, but to create a facsimile of real dialogue that is actually worth the reader's time.
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Jan 20, 2011

Just Write

There is a huge difference between spoken and written language but a good writer is expected to bridge the gap as seamlessly as possible. Spoken voice consists of tone, inflection, emotion, body language, and words. Writing is words alone, and we have to express all of the spoken aspects of language by our choice of written words.

Those words convey the message we want to carry to reader, whether it’s anger, happiness, warning, or sarcasm.

So how do we do that? Through tone, for one thing.

What tone does your voice set on the page? Is it upbeat? Casual? Quirky?

RaeAnne Thayne’s The Valentine Two-Step is a great example of voice done right. Not only can you hear RaeAnne in the book, but her characters’ voices never waver. Her hero’s narrative is written in the same patterns and inflections, dips and swells, as his speaking voice. The same thing is true for the heroine.

When a piece of writing sounds cardboard, static and like something that anyone who can form a complete sentence could string together, you can be sure that your voice is absent.

Why does this happen? There are three basic reasons:

1) Your heart isn’t involved in the subject.

If you don’t care about what you’re writing, that will become painfully obvious to anyone who tries to read it.

Time after time, editors refer to that “spark” they’re looking for when they pick up a manuscript. That spark comes from you, from your unique outlook on life, from what you believe, what you find important, what you think is funny.

Think of some of your favorite authors. Think about what they bring to the book that keeps you coming back again and again. It’s more than plot. It’s more than character. It’s more than motivation, goal, and conflict.

What keeps you going back to an author time and again is that something in the author’s style appeals to you. You like the way her mind works, you share her sense of humor, and as you read, you feel almost as if the two of you have a special connection.

I don’t know exactly how to describe the authors whose works appeal to me most, but I do know the feeling I get when I start a book that has whatever the elusive quality is. It’s a sense of shared intimacy that I think can only come when the walls are stripped away and the pretense is gone.

I pick up the book, and I can almost hear the author say, “Let me tell you how it was,” and I say, “Yes, yes! Tell me!” And she has me, right there in the palm of her hand, as long as she remains honest.

Once she closes the door on the honesty, she’ll lose me. If she puts on airs, becomes pretentious, crosses the lines of (to me) acceptable behavior, or suddenly starts trying to instruct me, I’m gone.

Likewise, if she repeatedly insults my intelligence, I’m outta there. She has to respect me enough to tell me the truth -- all of it. Even the truth that hurts.

2) Your knowledge of your subject is too shallow and scattered to come across clearly and engagingly.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, your references will become vague and shadowy. When that happens, your clear author’s voice is gone.

Of course, there will be some things you can write around, some details you can wait to look up. But if you don’t know, for example, where your story is set you’re going to run into trouble because you can’t be clear about the setting.

Don’t use this as an excuse to stop writing while you research! Use some discretion. But also don’t try to write about things you just don’t understand.

3) You’re trying to write the “right” way so you're bogged down in rules.

The trouble with voice is that it’s impossible to show in a few simple examples. Voice doesn’t become apparent quickly, and it’s not gained easily.

Voice is identified by an author’s entire body of work. Voice is something that becomes stronger with time, and the chances that anyone has a really clear, strong voice in their first book are relatively slim.

Most likely, an editor will find a hint of Strong-Voice-To-Come in your early efforts and will be willing to take a chance on your ability to develop that hint into something more substantial. But in order to do that, you must be honest about how you view the world, what you think is important.

The real story is not in statistics or facts, it’s in the people involved. Peter Jacobi (The Magazine Article: Think It, Plan It, Write It, Writer's Digest Books, 1991) describes it as: "sifting facts through personality, the personality of the people involved in the topic you're covering and your own personality as a writer."

How do you Develop Voice?

Try writing with your eyes closed so you can’t see and edit what you’ve written. (This works better with a keyboard than a pen and paper, and, of course, you want to be sure your fingers are in the right place before you start!) If you can't actually write with your eyes closed, try spending a few minutes with them closed before you write. Closing your eyes helps you focus inward where the story is being created, and what you hear in there is the closest thing to your true voice.

Learn to let the story tell itself and avoid the urge to get your fingers in the pie (at least until the editing and revising stages.)

Be direct and clear. Don’t try to sound like a writer. Don’t try to get fancy with your phrasing, just say what you mean.

Don’t belittle or demean yourself. Allow for the chance that maybe your voice is exactly as it’s meant to be so you can reach the people out there who will respond to your unique voice. Remind yourself every day when you sit down to write that your voice is no accident.

Work with your critique group and ask them to help you know where your voice is shining through and where it disappears and becomes safe or generic.

Don't listen to your critique group if they're trying to rewrite your stuff and force their voices onto your work.

If you just can’t relax when you’re writing something “real” spend time journaling or writing something that “doesn’t matter.” The more time you spend with your real voice, the more comfortable you’ll become with it.

Don McKinney (Writing Magazine Articles That Sell, Writer's Digest Books, 1994) writes:

"The simple, uncomplicated approach to a dramatic situation will have more impact than the kind of souped-up prose that too many writers feel is necessary.

“Your best/first move might be to forget everything you ever learned about the ‘craft of writing’ and get back to the basic approach, the direct, immediate, uncluttered way of telling a story you used when you were a child.

“To put it even more simply: Don't write like a writer--just write.”

When it comes down to it, that’s the only advice anyone can give about voice. Don’t write like a writer, just write.

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Jan 17, 2011

The Dangers of "Perfection"

We’ve all had the experience of a story sounding great in our heads, but then it loses something when we try to put it on paper. That’s because in your head you’re telling the story to yourself in your speaking voice. When you write it down you’re suddenly trying to sound like a writer. You search through the thesaurus for the perfect word--a word you’d never use in normal conversation. (Hint: If you have to look it up, it’s [ahem] probably not part of your natural voice.)

Suddenly in that process of writing down what’s in your head, you’ve lost your voice and you’ve adapted the voice of someone else. Someone you consider to be a writer, perhaps. Or maybe you’ve just started using the voice you think your writing should have.

For many writers, the voice they consider their “real voice” -- the one that shows up when they first start writing -- is the least unique of their voices, and so it’s the one that least reflects who they are.

What we get instead is a generic, homogenized voice of clich├ęs, of advertising, or popular culture. It is a voice without color or tone. Left unattended it becomes interchangeable with the next writer’s voice...

Once, several years ago when I was serving as president of my local Romance Writers of America chapter, I agreed to judge about twenty contests in exchange for getting other published authors to judge our chapter’s contest. I read so many contest entries that year, I swore I’d never judge another one. (A vow I’ve since broken.)

After reading several entries a night for nearly two weeks, something began to concern me. Nearly every entry I picked up was written in almost the same voice as the one before it and the one that came afterward. Sentence structure, word choices, and even plot were nearly identical. The more I read, the more I realized that there was nothing in any of those entries to set it apart from the rest. Unless there’s something to set your work apart from the pack, why would an editor buy it?

Like I said, even the plots were the same. Out of 10 entries I read over the course of a couple of days, eight were about women who got temporary jobs working for the hottest guy they’d ever met. Eight out of 10! Those odds aren't good at all.

The conflicts were all nearly identical, as well. Sometimes the job was working as a nanny for the hero’s children, and sometimes it wasn’t, but the hero was always torn between his lust for his employee and the rule (whether written in a manual somewhere or his own personal rule) against fraternizing with employees.

At the time, I was teaching a class that included weekly critiques, so I decided to try an experiment. Each of us wrote 10 pages and submitted those pages to class for critique. Instead of letting the others know who wrote them, we left all identifying markers off. We mailed the pages to my daughter and let her distribute them to each of us so that nobody involved with the class knew who wrote what. The goal was to see if others could identify our work by voice alone.

Keep in mind that we'd been working together for three or four years at that time, and we’d all read a lot of pages written by the others.

Those early efforts weren’t all that successful. Some of us could tell, and some of us couldn’t. In the years since, we’ve all worked hard at letting our individual voices ring true in our work, and the last time we did “Mystery Pages,” I think we had just two wrong guesses out of 36.

There is no color to the generic voice. There is no attitude. There’s no sense of humor. There is no uniqueness of phrasing. There’s no climate. No sense of place. No hint of background.

Peter Elbow, author of What Do We Mean When We Talk About Voice in Texts? said, “Writing with no voice is dead, mechanical, faceless, without sound. It may be logically organized; it may even be a work of genius. But, it is as though the words came out of a mixer rather than a person.”

He goes on to say, “Because they stop so often in mid-sentence and ponder, worry or change their minds about which word to use or which direction to go in, their writing lacks voice.”

Aspiring writers who haven't yet found their voice write with one purpose, to give someone else what they think that person wants.

Depending on who you’re trying to reach, you may be trying to sound scholarly and profound, witty and exciting, young and fresh, dark and brooding -- whatever you think the editor of the line you’re targeting may be looking for.

Voice is one of the hardest things to critique and judge in a contest because it’s hard to say to someone you don’t know well (or at all) that their voice isn’t ringing true. But it’s the first thing that hits me when I start reading someone’s work. I know immediately if the author is talking to me and telling me a story, or if she’s trying to sound like a writer. There’s an immediate and noticeable difference between generic voice and true voice, even if you’ve never met the author.

When we listen to someone talking, we hear the way their voice rises, where the stress falls, where the pauses are. We also hear inflection, which often indicates attitude.

Years ago, a weatherman on my local TV channel had a specific speech cadence that drove me crazy because his voice always dropped and paused mid-sentence. Then he rushed over the periods at the end of the sentence as if they didn’t exist. His sentences didn’t run from capital to period, they ran from middle to middle.

If I were writing dialogue and trying to make you hear the rhythm of his speech, I’d write something like this:

“Highs today will be in the mid-fifties but lows tomorrow. Will only reach into the twenties that should bring. Some much-needed precipitation to the area. On Sunday we should see. Clear skies and warmer temperatures...” and so on.

The music and rhythm of a person’s speech helps us to follow and remember what they say and who they are. The music of speech is the pattern of pitch changes: down up/down up. Rhythm deals with stress (soft/loud) and length—duration (short/long).

If you don’t hear this already when you listen to people talk, spend some time listening to the speech patterns of strangers so you can hear the music of their speech. I think this is one of the reasons Southern writers are often so popular. The music of their speech patterns often fill their books with rich melody.

When we read, we need similar sound cues—cues that can only be provided by the writer’s sentence patterns and punctuation. But in the generic, homogenized, safe voice, there are no patterns. There is no music or rhythm.

If you want to find your voice, let your words sing on the page.


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Jan 12, 2011

Just One of the Guys

Many years ago--probably close to 20 at the time of this writing--I was an aspiring writer who'd never actually finished a manuscript. I had never submitted a thing. Never entered a contest. Never heard of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, or Novelists, Inc. I’d never even heard of half the publishers out there. I knew nothing about marketing, nothing about publishing, nothing about the production process of a novel. I just knew that I wanted to write.

I became friendly with a man named Joe Walker and his wife. Joe and Anita lived in my neighborhood and attended my church. Joe and I had gone to the same high school many years before, and Joe also happened to be a writer.

At the time, he’d written a number of articles for some magazines published by our church, and he’d ghost-written a few books. Joe and I talked often about writing, and soon our little circle expanded to include a third person. After a while, Joe, Karen, and I decided to meet twice a month to discuss writing. My first critique group. I felt like a writer, but I was terrified to show them my stuff.

Gathering all my courage, I wrote a story and carried it to our first meeting. Joe brought a wonderful piece about something that had happened to him during the week, and Karen brought a thoughtful, articulate, and beautifully written story that left me speechless and filled with envy.  By comparison, my offering was short, clumsy, and juvenile-sounding.

At some point during one of our weeks, Joe complimented Karen on her beautiful writing style. I don’t remember everything he told her because it was just too painful for me and I blocked it all out.  I only remember the part that speared me straight in the heart: when he said, “Sherry and I just write like...one of the guys.”

I was crushed!  Devastated!  I could scarcely breathe!  I was mortified. And I was absolutely certain that I would never write another word as long as I lived. How could I dare?  I wrote like one of the...guys!!!!

Completely distraught, I crawled home and pouted for a while.  I tried everything I knew to put Joe's comment out of my head.  Eventually, I started reading some of the old things I’d written. I remember in particular a passage from my journal written during a time when I was trying really hard to sound like a writer. I’d written it during a trip to Illinois, and in it I described the vast fields of corn and sorghum (I think) in lofty terms that included as many fancy words as I could come up with.

The fact was, they were fields of green corn stalks and squatty sorghum plants, and even I had to admit (in retrospect) that my lofty descriptions sounded utterly ridiculous.  I think I even described the sorghum as majestic.

I read a few other passages—the ones that actually sounded good—and slowly began to realize that I wrote best when I wrote “like one of the guys.” The thing is, I don’t speak in lofty terms. I have a good vocabulary, I think, but the first words that come into my head when I’m speaking aren’t the longest and most difficult ones to pronounce. I talk like one of the guys, too, I guess.

After a long and painful journey through my own psyche, a lot of soul-searching, and a couple of two-by-fours upside the head, I began to accept that my voice was my voice, and that it was exactly what it needed to be in order to tell my stories and reach my audience. There are other people whose task it is to write to other people, and their voices will be different out of necessity. But there is nothing wrong with writing like one of the guys. For me, there’s something very right about it. 

I learned to accept my voice and then to embrace it, and shortly after that I wrote No Place for Secrets, the book that went on to be my first sale and earn me a three-book contract in the bargain. The "blow" that Joe Walker landed that night so many years ago was actually one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me in my writing journey.

Joe has gone on to write a few books, including the charming Christmas on Mill Street. He also writes a syndicated column called ValueSpeak available in newspapers across the country. If you ever happen to see one, read it. Joe writes just like he speaks. And while you’re reading, say “hey!” to Joe from me :) I owe him a far greater debt than I’ll ever be able to repay.

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Jan 10, 2011

Playing it Safe

We know that all stories start with an idea. Maybe we read something in the newspaper, have an experience, have a dream or overhear a conversation that lights a spark within us. We might see someone on the street, or overhear a snippet of conversation, or hear a report on the nightly news and think, “There’s a book in there somewhere.”

After we get the idea, we start plotting the story in our heads. We begin thinking about characters and making up dialogue. We test ideas on ourselves, trying to find the perfect situation to drop our characters into. Maybe we worry because we don’t know the end, or maybe we embrace the unknown and write to find out what happens. 

We dig until we find the right conflict and bang our heads against the wall over motivation. At this stage, the story might lose its allure. It’s no longer the magical tale that had us so excited a few weeks ago. In fact, it’s starting to look an awful lot like work.

Before you go any further, stop and ask yourself why you need to write this story. Look for a reason that goes deeper than the need for a paycheck or the desire to become published. Forget about your audience. Forget about your critique group, editors, agents, and contest judges. Just ask yourself what’s in this story for you?

If you don’t know the answer to that, you may find it hard to keep going when the going gets truly rough—and it will. So be selfish for just a moment and figure out what in this story speaks to your heart.

Don’t ask what you need to say in this book, what incredibly valuable piece of information you need to share or what philosophy or spiritual truth you’re supposed to include. Don’t think about entertaining your audience or wowing an editor. Consider instead asking what you need to learn from this book. Why would you read it if someone else wrote it?

Is it truly magical? Does it make you feel happy? Alive? Free? If you can’t find the place where the heart of the book connects with the heart of the writer, you may have trouble writing the book during crunch time. If you can’t find that connection, you may always be the writer telling a story. And if that happens, you’re probably going to sound like somebody trying to sound like a writer—and that’s probably not your own, unique and natural voice.

There must be something about the story that speaks to you besides the quest for advances and royalties. Something that calls to you besides the desire for publication. Something that touches your soul and begs for you to give it release.

Those are the things that appeal to the part of your voice that isn’t vocal, and these are the parts of the story that mean only you can tell it as it needs to be told. If you try to write like someone else, like anyone else, like everyone else, you’ll be shutting down the very thing that makes the book yours in the first place. Shut that down, and your chances of appealing to an editor, an agent, a reader will take a deep plunge.

I began my writing career with a mystery about a 73-year-old man named Fred Vickery. Fred wasn’t the protagonist I planned, but Fred took over in my quiet creative moments when my internal editor wasn’t allowed at the keyboard. After a brief battle, Fred became my protagonist.

Fred appealed to me because he was kind, compassionate, and wise, and because he said aloud many of the things I only dared to think at that stage of my life. Fred taught me never to edit my characters when they start talking to me, and though I do have to fight the urge in the beginning of almost every book, I can flip open one of my “Fred” books and remember within just a few pages all the lessons Fred taught me so long ago.

Why Do We Need Voice?

A story without a strong voice doesn’t come alive for the reader. It doesn’t touch the reader’s imagination, and that’s because the author isn’t present in the story.

I can hear you all shouting now! What do I mean? Aren’t I always harping on you to stay out of the story? What about author intrusion?

Well, you’re absolutely right. The author’s place in a book is a tricky subject. One of our goals is to remain invisible. We want our readers to become immersed in our stories and to forget that someone is behind the words.

We don’t want readers to break that very necessary suspension of disbelief which would lead to realizing that a person other than the viewpoint character created the story.

But if we remove ourselves entirely from the book, the story will have no soul.

Your author’s “voice” is something timeless. It should reach through generations and across the years to connect with the reader on his or her level. Our favorite books are the ones that whisper to us, “I know what you’re feeling,” though we don’t understand how.

Our author’s voice does the same thing. It says, “I know what you’re feeling,” and says it in a way that only you can. But of course, you can only say that if you are feeling what the reader is feeling. You can’t fake the emotion. You can’t fool the reader. Never lie. Even if the reader can’t identify the lie, she can feel it. Every time. Never fail.

You won’t find your voice if you aren’t in touch with your deepest self.

So how do you get in touch with your deepest self?

Mystery author Earlene Fowler told me once that the best advice she ever received about writing was to write about what frightened her most. She took that advice to heart and wrote a book about her greatest fear -- a woman trying to get on with life after the death of her husband.

That book sold, and Earlene’s career took off flying. Why? Because she wasn’t afraid to look deep inside herself to find where her own emotions would be most raw. Or maybe she was afraid, but she looked anyway.

If you routinely write about subjects that are safe for you, it shouldn’t be any surprise that your voice, that raw emotional part of you that you can’t create, might remain hidden behind those safe walls.

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Jan 6, 2011

More Thoughts about Voice

Voice tells the reader something about the author. We make assumptions about the author and her view of the world based on the way she deals with the subject matter she’s tackling.

Nora Ephron wrote and directed movies like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, and You’ve Got Mail. If she doesn’t have a strong personal belief in fate, she’s an awfully good liar.

Dean Koontz must have a strong religious philosophy because it’s present in all of his books—even if they are shelved in the horror section at the book store. C.S. Lewis’ Christian view of the world is clearly evident in his books.

Anne Tyler’s books are always peopled by quirky characters from the “real” world most of us inhabit—blue-collar workers, people struggling to make ends meet. You rarely find Anne Tyler writing about glitz and glamour, but that is the world of Danielle Steel.

Voice is what lets each of us start out with the same premise and come up with completely different stories. We are different. Our speech patterns and word choices are different when we speak aloud, and that’s what we want to reflect in our writing as well. Those who know us well should be able to hear us talking when they read our books—and not because the characters sound like us.

You’d think that voice would be the easiest writing technique to “learn” because it’s not actually something new or foreign. Your voice is already inside you and has always been. Learning voice is more about remembering than learning. But it’s also one of the hardest skills to teach because it requires the author to trust himself. 

Let’s face it. By the time you’ve hung around this industry for a while, you’ve heard so many rules about what’s right and what’s wrong, what you must do and what you must never do, it’s very difficult to trust yourself when you sit down to write. But the rules and fear are probably the very things robbing your work of its natural spark.

If you’re one of the many writers out there who have lost their voice amid all the rules and regulations, all the workshops and advice, don’t worry. To find your voice again, you’ll first have to know the other skills that go into a book so completely that you don’t really even have to think about them. It’s when you can stop thinking about the rules that you can finally relax enough to let your own voice shine through.

So it’s probably a good idea to learn the “rules” and to study story format and scene structure and characterization and all the rest so that you know instinctively what you’ll gain and what you’ll lose with each choice you make.

Finding your voice isn’t a function of learning yet another rule that makes your shoulders tense and your head ache. It’s a matter of relaxing enough to let your natural talents shine again.

Jan 4, 2011

Why? Why? Why?: Creating Believable Motivation

One of our most popular workshops is now available for download. This is an intermediate workshop focused on creating strong, believable motivation for your characters. Just come to our website and click on the Booklets for Download tab at the top of the page! 

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Jan 3, 2011

Thinking About Voice

I spend a lot of time thinking a lot about the craft of writing. If you’re going to teach other writers about the craft, you have to think about it. A lot. Lately, the subject of voice has been in the front of my mind. Specifically, what is “Voice,” and why is it so important?

Simply put, voice is you. It’s your unique way of speaking, of thinking, of communicating. It’s your background, where you live, and how you feel. It’s what you know and what you think.

Voice is made up of dialect and word choices, but it’s so much more. It communicates your unique view of the world to others. It's rhythm and flow. It's as much about where you pause as where you don't.

Voice is as important to writers as it is to musicians because unless you find and embrace the way of communicating with the world that is uniquely yours, you may have a hard time inviting readers into the worlds you create, whether in fiction or non-fiction, short story or novel.

We know, of course, that physical voice is the way we know who’s speaking when we pick up the phone, or overhear a couple of friends talking. But your soul’s voice is deeper than that. As a writer, our voices are also made up of what we believe is important, what we find funny, how we view and judge others and our philosophies about life in general.

That philosophy of life is where our creative voices begin to differ. That’s what makes Jerry Seinfeld different from Jerry Lewis. What sets the comedian Gallagher apart as he smashes watermelons while dishing on the world in general and stupid people in particular. It’s what made Larry the Cable Guy famous and what helped Oprah soar to heights most of us can’t even dare to imagine.

Compassion for the less fortunate made Red Skelton unique. Mister Rogers had a far different voice from Bozo the Clown. Listen to the Beatles music and you’ll hear how they went from just another long-haired boy band to adult men with deep observations to make about the world. Their views of the world set them apart from songwriters everywhere. No one would ever mistake Reba McEntire for any other female singer.

Even within the Beatles, you can tell the difference between a John Lennon song and one written by Paul McCartney. If you know classical music, you’ll know there’s a very big difference between Beethoven and Mozart, between Mozart and Chopin, between Chopin and Brahms.

That’s voice.

Disney has voice. You know what you’re getting when you go to a Disney movie, and you know a Disney movie when you see one, even without the mouse ears to clue you in.

Quentin Tarantino has a distinctive voice. Spike Lee has voice. Norah Ephron has voice. Ron Howard has voice. If you see a movie with any of these names on it, you know what you’re in for. The projects aren’t identical. No one would have any trouble telling the difference between Splash!, Cocoon, Far and Away, and Apollo 13, but there are similarities in all those movies—and those similarities are voice.

Likewise, Jennifer Cruisie has voice. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has voice. Curtiss Ann Matlock has voice. Anne Tyler has voice. Victoria Holt had voice. Suzanne Brockman has voice. Deborah Smith has voice. Taylor Caldwell had voice. James Michener had voice. Whether or not you like what they do, you always know what you’re getting when you pick up one of their books.

But that’s not true of everyone out there writing books today. If you spend much time judging contests within the romance world, you’ll know that many, many hopeful authors are opting for a “safe” voice in an effort to break in with that first sale.

A few years ago, I judged over 70 contest entries from several different writing contests within a very short period of time. Before long, I started to realize that nearly every entry sounded almost exactly like the one before it, and almost exactly like the one that came after it.

Those contest entries were so homogenized, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. None of them made a positive impression on me as I read and, in fact, the only detail I remember from that whole pile of entries was that a frightening number of authors had even chosen the same basic plot setup to write about that year. In fact, the only thing that kept me from thinking that they’d all been written by the same person was the occasional use of a different font or header format.

In our rush to get published and do things “right,” some of us are losing the very thing that makes us unique, but it’s that unique voice that might land the publishing contract we’re so anxious to get.

There was nothing wrong with those contest entries. The writing in all of them was pretty good and technically correct in almost every aspect—but “pretty good” writing doesn’t win publishing contracts, or build huge reader bases, although it might win contests because, after all, someone has to be awarded first place, even if every entry is mediocre.

Voice goes deeper than word choice and sentence structure. Voice is life philosophy. You don’t pick up a Jennifer Cruisie book or one by Susan Elizabeth Phillips if you’re not in the mood to laugh. You know that even when they’re tackling serious subject matter, they’ll treat it with humor.

Their outlooks on life are light and somewhat irreverent, and they write about people who live their lives with the same outlooks. Voice is why one screenwriter gets us smiling while we watch a movie about dying wives and heart transplants, but the next guy sends us out of the theater feeling raw and empty.

Voice is not generic. It is always, always, always unique. That means that if your work sounds like the work produced by the person sitting next to you, you probably haven’t found your voice yet.

Check back later for more thoughts on the writer's voice.